Towards a ‘Good Life’ for Farm Animals: Development of a Resource Tier Framework to Achieve Positive Welfare for Laying Hens
This paper by a group of researchers in the U.K., looks at ways of going beyond a basic definition of animal welfare towards providing animals, specifically laying hens, with a “good life.” Using the U.K.’s Farm Animal Welfare Committee’s “Five Freedoms,” which focused on negative aspects of welfare (such as freedom from pain, and so on), the paper seeks to build a regulatory framework that focuses on positive welfare, and opportunities rather than freedoms. Through a literature review as well as consultations with chicken welfare experts, they arrive at a potential system of grading (Welfare +, ++, and +++). Visits and evaluations at farms around the U.K. offers some initial findings that could help such a system be implemented.
Animal welfare regulations have often focused on negative aspects of being an animal raised for food production: they look at how producers can alleviate negative factors of welfare, such as pain or confinement. The authors of a study from the U.K. would like to see a continuation of a recent trend towards a new model – one where “good welfare is not simply the absence of negative subjective states, but also includes the presence of positive experiences such as pleasure.” There are no regulatory frameworks that hold positive welfare opportunities as their focus, so the authors outline a potential path towards one. Through a literature review and consultations with numerous chicken welfare experts, they build on FAWC’s “four opportunities” (which included “Comfort, Pleasure, Confidence, and Interest”) and add another, “Healthy Life.” With these five opportunities as their guiding principles, they created a tiered system of Welfare followed by 1-3 “+” symbols, each meaning a specific raise in animal welfare conditions after the criteria of the previous tier have been met. They then consulted farmers through a process of farm evaluations and feedback that provided data to evaluate the feasibility of the system.
Their study reveals that in order to promote positive welfare (within a system that is ultimately using animals as a commodity), minimizing harm is essential, and achieving a “good life” for laying hens is a delicate balance of behavioral freedom, resource use, and health care. Providing hens with “a life as natural as they would experience in semi-wild or feral populations” is not feasible in a commodity-based system, but aiming for as high a tier as possible is essential. Since welfare is always provided within a commodity context, it is unsurprising then that many of the farmers who participated in the pilot program had strong concerns about the how the study measured and sought to implement welfare improvements. “Several producers expressed a general distrust of the science behind the framework,” note the researchers, while “some had concerns on the reliability of the assessment. Particularly, producers were concerned that environmental factors, beyond the producers’ control, might compromise their scores. For example one farmer stated that ‘A good farm suddenly turns into a bad farm because something has stressed the flock which was outside of the farmer’s control.'” Producers also wondered how it might be possible to highlight a range of performance within systems, such as ways of differentiating “how good” one free range farm is from another. Of course, farmers are also concerned with costs, and researchers noted that “some producers had reservations about any additional costs that might be incurred to achieve higher welfare tiers.” In other words, if improvement means paying anything extra, they don’t want to participate.
Though the study strongly highlights that any implementation of welfare regulations in a commodity-based system will eventually meet with economic resistance, at the very least the researchers note that “the framework appears to be relatively easy to use during farm visits and has the potential to highlight differences both within and between different husbandry systems.” As a conclusion, the authors make the important distinction that while the project was broadly supported by both welfare experts and producers, there were significant, mostly economic, concerns that would need to be addressed before the pilot was implemented fully.
The concept of a ‘good life’ recognises the distinction that an animal’s quality of life is beyond that of a ‘life worth living’, representing a standard of welfare substantially higher than the legal minimum (FAWC, 2009). We propose that the opportunities required for a ‘good life’ could be used to structure resource tiers that lead to positive welfare and are compatible with higher welfare farm assurance schemes. Published evidence and expert opinion was used to define three tiers of resource provision (Welfare +, Welfare ++ and Welfare +++) above those stipulated in UK legislation and codes of practice, which should lead to positive welfare outcomes. In this paper we describe the principles underpinning the framework and the process of developing the resource tiers for laying hens. In doing so, we summarise expert opinion on resources required to achieve a ‘good life’ in laying hens and discuss the philosophical and practical challenges of developing the framework. We present the results of a pilot study to establish the validity, reliability and feasibility of the draft laying hen tiers on laying hen production systems. Finally, we propose a generic welfare assessment framework for farm animals and suggest directions for implementation, alongside outcome parameters, that can help define and promote a future ‘good life’ for farm animals.